ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — As Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton nears the end of eight years in office to cap a four-decade political career, he’s content to take a back seat in the race to replace him. At least for now.
The Democratic governor has repeatedly declined to take a swing at his predecessor, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty — the man he faults for leaving the state with a $6 billion budget deficit when Dayton took office in 2011 — even as Pawlenty considers running for his old job this fall. And in an interview with The Associated Press, Dayton said he will wait to make an endorsement until after voters have picked the Democratic candidate from among the three people who are running for his party’s nomination.
Above all, Dayton said he wants to give the Democratic candidates space from his two terms in office.
“I don’t think anybody should run on a third Dayton term,” he said last week. “This election is not about me. It’s about after me.”
Dayton first won the job in a 2010 election that saw major GOP gains nationwide. Aside from a two-year period of Democratic control of state government in his first term — when he and the Legislature raised taxes on the state’s wealthiest earners, increased the minimum wage and legalized same-sex marriage — he has spent much of his tenure tangling with Republican majorities.
But Dayton has no regrets about deciding against running for a third term.
“I’m no George Washington, but he was right: Two terms is enough in the executive branch,” quipped Dayton, who is now 71 and has faced health problems during his tenure, including a series of spinal surgeries that have left him with a painful limp.
Dayton says he does plan to help his party’s governor campaign this fall and work to help Democrats take back control of the state House. Rep. Tim Walz, State Auditor Rebecca Otto and state Rep. Erin Murphy are running for the Democratic nomination for governor, facing an unsettled field of Republicans.
Dayton has plenty to offer fellow Democrats on the campaign trail.
He was the first Democrat elected as Minnesota’s governor in nearly three decades — first in a narrow victory after a monthslong recount in 2010, then in his convincing re-election in 2014. Few Minnesota Democrats have been more successful in elections overall than Dayton: He was elected state auditor in 1990 and won one term as a U.S. senator before becoming governor.
And even as Dayton encouraged candidates “to be running independently” from him, he said the best help he could offer Democrats was his accomplishments in office.
At the top of Dayton’s list is a four-plus year run of state budget surpluses, achieved largely by imposing a new, higher income tax on the state’s top earners in 2013. That’s been a consistent theme throughout Dayton’s two terms as governor, and he said safeguarding the state against a return to deficits was among his top priorities for his final year.
Pawlenty hasn’t yet officially entered the race for governor, but Democratic groups have attacked him as the presumptive Republican front-runner for the $6.2 billion budget shortfall the state faced after Pawlenty left office in 2011. Pawlenty created a campaign committee this past week and launched a new campaign site that says he “balanced Minnesota’s budget by making tough choices and holding government accountable.”
Dayton has chosen his words about his predecessor carefully.
“For him to justify that, that he behaved responsibly, I’ll leave that to him,” Dayton said. “The situation I inherited shouldn’t be left to anyone.”
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